After taking to the air for the first time in early 2011, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System has been ticking off a series of firsts, including being the first unmanned aircraft to launch and recovery from a modern aircraft carrier. Another box has now been ticked with the aircraft completing its first night flights.

The first night flight took place at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, where the two X-47B demonstrators were transported to in mid-2012. US Naval Air Systems Command says the night flights, which commenced on April 10, were the "next incremental step in developing the operations concept for more routine UAS flight activity." Future tests will aim to nail down operating procedures for the unmanned aircraft sharing airspace with manned aircraft.

It was a big week for the combined US Navy/Northrop Grumman X-47B team, which received the 2013 Robert J Collier Trophy at the US National Aeronautic Association awards ceremony on April 9. The annual award, which has been presented since 1911, recognizes US achievements in aeronautics and astronautics, with previous winners including Orville Wright, Chuck Yeager, Kelly Johnson, Apollo 11, and the Hubble Telescope.

"We are honored the X-47B program was selected to receive the most prestigious award in the aviation industry," said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. "[X-47B UCAS is] a breakthrough technology that will impact naval aviation for years to come. It's a unique opportunity to be part of something that changes history and I can proudly say this team has done that."

The X-47B team will be formally presented with the 8-ft (2.4-m) high Collier trophy on May 29. The X-47B is scheduled to enter service in 2019.

View gallery - 2 images